Progressive Faith Leaders Regroup, Look to Future

Religious leaders who mounted an unsuccessful bid to resurrect progressive values in the 2004 elections say they refuse to yield the “moral high ground” to conservative Christians who helped President Bush win a second term.

According to Religion News Service, more than two dozen Jewish and Christian progressive faith leaders held a two-day strategy session in Washington in early December, assessing an election in which the vast majority of the voters who cited “moral values” as a top concern went for Bush.

Participants, convened by the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, said they must refocus on the spiritual roots of their agenda and not allow conservatives to define “moral values” solely around gay marriage and abortion but also health care, education and the environment.

And, in a signal of shifting strategy, participants said they would shun the “progressive” label in favor of “prophetic,” which they said implies a greater degree of religious motivation.

“‘Progressive’ sounds like it’s an ideological position with values attached,” said the Rev. James A. Forbes Jr., pastor of New York’s Riverside Church, “but ‘prophetic’ carries with it that you’re willing to be (held) accountable by the God you claim to serve.”

Forbes said all the post-election introspection about the importance of values “is like cut flowers” that will soon wither unless it is rooted in solid foundations of theology and activist faith.

The session was a follow-up to a June meeting called by John Podesta, a former Clinton White House chief of staff and a Democratic strategist. Podesta reiterated his willingness to help progressives continue work begun in 2004. Without religious voices, the Democrats will be perpetual also-rans, he said.

“People trying to sell progressive (ideals) and vision would be well served by listening to people in this room,” he said. On Thursday, participants met with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

The meeting came on the eve of a key gathering of Democratic leaders at Walt Disney World, as part of the process to select a new party chairman in February. Several party leaders are pushing for a chairman who will incorporate the voices of religious leaders. Alexia Kelley, who served a short stint as religious outreach director for the party this year, said Democrats can gain the upper hand in the values debate because progressives “have the moral high ground.”

“What does God expect of us?” asked Kelley, a Catholic. “It’s not to have 45 million people without health care.”

The Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches and a former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, said “the good news about the bad news” from the election is that the party seems to be taking religious voices more seriously.

However, he said progressives need to recapture the language of faith.

“We sound like secularists when we need to sound like the prophetic religious leaders we are,” Edgar said.

Participants at the meeting included the Rev. Jim Wallis, convener of the anti-poverty group Call to Renewal; Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; former Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend; civil rights leaders; and representatives of mainline Protestant churches and Catholic and Jewish social justice groups.